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A Little Javanese

Andre Mangeot

" 'Larsen lost track of minutes and hours. Maybe he dozed. The darkness was heavy with fragrance now: jasmine, orange, clove above all. Around him the kreteks popped faintly , their tiny red points suspended like fire-beetles. Whether he was tired or intoxicated, he couldn't determine."

Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius

The stories in this slim volume vary in length from the five-page prose-poem, Madison and Penn, to the almost novella-length title story. All portray troubled protagonists at pivotal moments and are characterized by a vivid sense of place. 

In Madison and Penn Harris, a jetlagged academic in New York, encounters a beggar on an underground train. His feelings of distaste for "formless coils" of graffiti and boredom at the "identical masks" of the passengers, are replaced by remembered media images of the Vietnamese war when he sees a dreadlocked beggar wearing a medal. A story about guilt and the failure of compassion, it sets the tone and style for the rest of the collection. 

The narrator of Hope is the widowed ex-owner of "the abattoir at Clichy" who encounters a literary ghost in the environs of a French chateau at night. My personal favourite, it is strong on evoking an atmosphere of dread: "The crickets sawed always all about me; now and then an owl would shriek from the wooded hillside, the trees round the chateau". The combination of narrative voice, ironic and slightly distant, and the detailed setting gives an authentic feel to an ambiguous yarn in which identity of the man intermingles with that of the chateau's ghostly inhabitant. 

In Ambition, Arkady, a fifteen year old would-be ski-jump champion who lives in a bleak Moscow apartment block, sees an opportunity to escape his lonely existence and impress a girl. Abandoned by the father, his mother is a night-shift worker who might be seeing another man. The exotic foreigners in the local department store contrast with the drab locals: "The quality and cut of their coats was different, and the colours they wore- a red hat, he saw now; a bright yellow scarf – showed up in the monochrome crowd like flowers on a coal-heap". The anxiety-provoking drama that ensues reminds him of what truly allows him to escape: "Nothing equaled this. Not medals, not success – perhaps not even love. This soaring in silence, a feeling so pure it sustained one for weeks." 

Jorge, the hero of One Day of Life, is a South America delivery man with literary ambitions. He too, undergoes an epiphany that gives him a clearer sense of purpose along with political awareness. A chance off-road encounter brings him into grisly contact with evidence of corruption and abuse of power. Here too the sense of place is palpable: "The corridor of cane was like a funnel, concentrating the heat, creaking in the airless afternoon like the timbers of a ship."

The title story, A Little Javanese, accounts for half the pages in the book, allowing for a more complicated narrative with a slowly building atmosphere of menace and some memorable minor characters. Larsen, a Swedish engineer on a dam project in Indonesia, has become enmeshed with native culture. When a series of trivial but mysterious cuts appear on his leg he goes along with his local friend's suggestion to call in a medicine man. At first rejecting what he is told, he is finally forced to come to terms with the consequences of his own actions as his health deteriorates and his personal and professional integrity come under scrutiny. Recalling Somerset Maugham’s ambiguous colonial tales of cultural misunderstanding and the DH Lawrence's sensitivity to the natural world, Mangeot uses metaphor and dreams, foreign dialogue and descriptions of rituals to create an atmosphere that's both seductive and terrifying.

Read an excerpt from one of the stories from this collection on Salt Publishing.

Sheila Cornelius studied English Literature and Media at Goldsmiths College, London. An enthusiastic student of contemporary culture, she writes about theatre, cinema, fiction and visual arts. She is the author of a book on Chinese film and writes short stories. Sheila attends several writers’ and readers’ groups in London.
Sheila's other Short Reviews: The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008

Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

Liz Niven and Brian Whittingham (eds)  Bucket of Frogs

PublisherSalt Publishing

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Andre Mangeot lives and works in Cambridge. He has published two poetry collections, Natural Causes (Shoestring 2003) and Mixer (Eggbox, 2005). A prizewinner in the 2006 Peterloo and Wigtown/Scottish National poetry competition, he is a member of the performance group, "The Joy of Six". A second short story collection will be published this year.

Read an interview with Andre Mangeot

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If you liked this book you might also like....

DH Lawrence "The Collected Short Stories"

W Somerset Maugham "Collected Short Stories, Vol 1"

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